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Essay, Therese Thau Heyman, Curator
Setting the Stage
At the present time, poster art is in a period of renaissance. Posters have come to be regarded as mysterious cultural objects, whose flatness and literalness only deepen their resonance, as well as inexhaustibly rich emblems of the society. . . . Posters have become one of the most ubiquitous kinds of cultural objects—prized partly because they are cheap, unpretentious, "popular" art.1

—Susan Sontag

The purpose of American posters has always been to grab the individual and the collective consciousness and demand attention and action. Whatever the message—from urgent appeals to patriotism to voices raised in protest, from pleas for environmentalism to seductive suggestions urging us to buy jeans—the poster reflects the explosion of ideas in the twentieth century, both intellectual and visual. Designers adapt quickly to changes in the social landscape to keep their posters a fresh and vital means of communication.

Through the broad scope of Posters American Style we explore the strategies of commerce, propaganda, and patriotism. While it is not possible to trace all the many changes in poster styles in the last one hundred years, it is evident that to attract attention, poster artists must constantly search for a fresh approach and an element of the unexpected. Despite conventional wisdom that the straightforward solution may be the clearest communication, it may also be so dull that the message is never read.2

This survey views the American poster through its early examples, its peculiar slogans, and its visual devices, which incorporate a diverse vocabulary of symbols that have broad appeal for Americans. Each poster campaign has considered its targeted audience, from aesthetes to peaceniks; despite the resulting diversity, a uniquely American accent prevails.

How American?

American style is a challenging concept, and it may have many meanings, as this selection of posters demonstrates. While rarity and uniqueness are important considerations in other genres, posters are by definition numerous and often widely distributed. They reach out; they are multiple, seeming to appear everywhere for a time. Yet in all their many-faceted variety, they fulfill the one overriding requirement of a poster—they communicate effectively. This effectiveness arises from a complex layering of words, symbols, systems, and design.

In American circus posters created in the first decades of the twentieth century, for instance, the acts staged in the big top provided the poster's visual content—a crowded assembly of animals, freaks, and high-wire acrobats appeared in the Strobridge posters3—as well as informative text about the date, time, owner, and publisher, in brilliant eye-catching colors.


Slogans distinguish many posters. In Ben Shahn's A Good Man Is Hard to Find, we read a phrase familiar as a song and also as a political slogan, which reminds us that this poster supports Henry Wallace's 1948 campaign. Adding to the political commentary, this poster offers a visible moral jab with another song title, "Little White Lies." The slogans available to a mass audience, combined with the work of an experienced graphic artist and postermaker, allowed the brief phrase to convey complex messages.

Often, just one word can get the message across by building on a broadly shared social imperative. In both world wars, "Enlist" came as a command, which was often the poster's message and purpose. Such shorthand requires an easily shared idiom, as in the famous slogan "I Want You for U.S. Army."

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1. Susan Sontag, "Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity," in Donald Stermer, ed., The Art of Revolution: 96 Posters from Castro's Cuba, 1959–1970 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970). [Back to top]

2. Katherine McCoy as quoted by Elena G. Millie in "College Poster Art," Art Journal 44 (spring 1984): 60. [Back to top]

3. John Merten, "Stone by Stone along a Hundred Years with the House of Strobridge," Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio 8, no. 1 (January 1950): 15–22. [Back to top]

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